Monday, January 25, 2010

Planning a sustainable menu

Wow. I underestimated how much less stressful life would be with a simple menu. The hardest part was deciding what to put on it. But now that I have, I'm saving time, saving money, and eating healthier.

Why did I decide to create a menu? In reality, it stems from an earlier failure to make my living arrangements work. My roommate makes considerably more money than I do, and so he has agreed to do the grocery shopping in exchange for my doing the cleaning and cooking. Since that plays into both of our strengths, I was more than happy to agree. The problem was, he would only go shopping once a month, or even further apart than that. We could go weeks at a time without fresh produce, or in an attempt to plan ahead, I would pick up more produce just to have it go bad before I could use it. I felt horrible to have all of that food go to waste. So, I devised a plan. If I developed a menu, and if I knew exactly how much of what ingredients I needed in a given week, I could convince him to go shopping weekly. And, because I knew exactly what I needed, I would waste less food, spend less time shopping and cooking, I would eat healthier, and save money on the ol' grocery bill.

Now, anything I put on the menu needed to have a few qualities. First, it had to perform well as leftovers. Second, the recipe had to double easily. Third, it needed to be nutritious enough to warrant having for two meals close together. The ideal is to double a recipe, and then serve it for dinner, and for lunch the following day. You're cooking half as much, and probably eating healthier as a result (fewer rushed meals and convenience foods). I also favored things like casseroles or stir fries or anything that could be made in one big pot. Less cleanup that way.

Here's what a week's menu looks like:

I added a calendar to my Google Calendar called "menu" and I just create a all day event for each recipe. I paste the recipe into the description of the event, and on that day I click on the event to pull up the recipe.

I've got a different recipe for every day of the month, and I'm not afraid to switch things out if there's something I really want and it's not on the menu. I just make sure to have a recipe and double it so that there's enough for dinner and lunch the following day.

When it comes to making a shopping trip, I sit down and look at the menu for the week. I figure out what I need for the recipes, and what I already have. Then I get to making a shopping list. The important thing with this step is to list the amount of you need of a particular item. You can do this in a couple of ways. Either use recipes that list ingredients in terms of number of items (i.e. 6 medium carrots or 2 cans of water chestnuts), or list the measurement and guesstimate when you get to the store. This week, I listed 4 cups of mushrooms as one of the things I needed to pick up. I guessed that one handful of button mushrooms, or about 3-4 mushrooms, was a cup. The great thing about most types of cooking is that exact measurements aren't necessary. I didn't measure out my mushrooms cup by cup when I actually got around to cooking, I just used all of the mushrooms I bought. You'll get better with practice, and you'll learn that a lemon has about 4 tablespoons of juice in it, and that 4 tablespoons is equal to 1/4 cup, etc. And, because you already have the approximate amount of the ingredients you need, you really don't have to do any measuring, just chop, mince, etc. and add them to the pot.

And the best part is, I know I'm going to get at least 2 meals out of each time I cook, sometimes 3 if I'm lucky. This also means I have better portion control, which is hard for me this time of year; I don't get outside a lot on account of the gloomy weather, so I spend most of my time cooking and eating the food I cook, and don't pay much attention to how much I'm eating. I serve myself and my roommate each 1/6 to 1/4 of the total food, and then immediately move the rest of it to a storage container and put it in the fridge. Then I force myself to clean my pot before the food gets burned or dried on, which means I spend less time trying to scrape off caked on food at a later time.

Overall, a success. I've lost about 4 pounds already because I'm eating better food and more reasonable portions. I'm wasting less food because I'm only buying a week's worth at a time, and I'm buying the exact amounts I need for the specific foods I'm making. And I'm saving time and money on both shopping and cooking.

For now I've got a menu of 31 items that I rotate through each month. The next step is the develop a seasonal menu which relies on ingredients that are available locally at any given time of year. I'm not at that step yet, but it's on the to do list. The benefits of using the local, seasonal produce are: 1) fewer farm to fork miles, which means you have fresher food that's easier on the planet, and 2) you're saving even more money on your grocery bill, because in season produce is always cheaper than out of season produce which has to be imported from places with warmer climates, like Mexico, Chile, Ecuador, etc. I hate that I'm using as many fresh tomatoes this time of year as I am... they're ungodly expensive, and have to come from halfway across the world. Soon I'll have those kind of kinks out of my menu, but until then, I'm already enjoying the benefits I've gained from my new menu.

Oh, and I'm also formatting my recipes for use with the Digital Recipe Sidekick for Android phones. It's a nifty little hands-free application that will read the ingredients and directions to you while you cook. I only have some of the recipes done so far, but here's what I have:

Pad Thai

These recipes are all completely vegan, though not all of them have been tested. When you click them, they should show up as styled XML, which is human readable. If you have an older browser, it might not work right. In any case, you can save them and import them into DRS on your Android-powered phone. And note that some of these make more than 4 servings. The lasagna recipe, for example, makes two casseroles: one for now, and one to freeze for next month. Then all you have to do is pop the lasagna in the oven to cook without having to go through all of the prep work again.

And really, don't feel too constrained by your menu. I buy seven recipes worth of ingredients, but I don't necessarily make them on the nights that they're scheduled. For instance, tonight is supposed to be chow mein night, but I did chow mein on Friday night. Instead, I'm doing mac and cheeze tonight, which was on the menu for Saturday night. Be all loosey goosey with it. Just have your recipes and ingredients ready to keep life as uncomplicated as possible. Also, I do keep around some convenience foods just in case. Namely ramen. If a particular dish doesn't end up being enough food for lunch the next day, I have an exit strategy. And even if the convenience food is unhealthy, at least I know I'm going to be following it up with a nutritious dinner. It all balances out in the end.

Until next time, happy eating...

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